Sheff Weds 4 - 0 Cardiff. Comment

Last updated : 08 January 2024 By Paul Evans

“Fantasy football” is a phrase that has acquired its own meaning in the last thirty years or so as what seems sometimes like millions play it every week and you get the impression that for many it’s more important than what is happening on the pitch – indeed, to hear some talk, they think the purpose of the Premier League programme every week is to provide points for their selected eleven!.


Yes, you say the words fantasy football now and every one knows what you’re talking about, but, having watched Cardiff City play cup football this season, I would argue that in this corner of south Wales anyway, fantasy football is a term that has a second meaning when applied to the team I support.

Cardiff City are having a better Championship season than was forecast by pundits from far and wide. It was generally thought we were going to struggle with nearly all of the forecasts I saw from nationwide organisations tending to place us in the bottom third of the table somewhere. There was the odd optimist who had us maybe reaching halfway, but, if you were looking for anyone who was saying we’d make the top ten, then you’d almost certainly be looking at locals who would be, how shall I put it, swayed by their allegiance.

Yet, Cardiff have spent nearly all of the first half of the season in the top half of the table and, at times, they’ve been in the top quarter. Cardiff’s success, such as it is, has been built upon hard work, defensive discipline, making the most of set pieces and, importantly, everyone fully knowing and performing their roles when the team is not in possession of the ball. The emphasis placed on that last named aspect of our play in 23/24 has been made clear by a manager who has gone public with his criticism of some first team squad players for their lack of work ethic when we don’t have the ball.

A neutral reading that last paragraph would likely deduce that entertainment has been in pretty short supply at Cardiff City this season and, while there have been some matches earlier in the season in particular where this was not the case, they would not be too far wrong. The truth is that results have been better than performance and, for many, that’s fine, they want to see their team win above all else and so aren’t too worried that at times watching them play is like watching paint dry.

Yet, would City have been able to make it to their current position of eighth if they had gone out with an enterprising, attacking attitude where they wouldn’t worry about conceding three because they knew they could score four? I think we all know the answer to that one!

So, those who, like me, want to see some entertainment to go with the points we pick up have, largely, had to accept that we can’t have the best of both worlds

That said, there’s always Aaron Ramsey to come back (at least I hope there is) and Erol Bulut has been pretty open when talking about his recruitment plans for this month – he wants a more reliable goal scorer and a general increase in his team’s creativity.

However, when it comes to cup matches in this season of pragmatic, defensive and thrill free league football, it’s almost as if Erol Bulut and his coaching staff have taken pity on supporters wanting some excitement from their team because when there aren’t any points to be gained, anything goes – Cardiff City play fantasy football in cup competitions!

Whereas it’s a rigid 4-2-3-1 every week in the Championship, it has been a back three consisting of a token centre back, a full back and midfielder at times in the cups. Not only that, in front of the three or four defenders, the players selected are given more freedom and there are plenty of fancy flicks and play on the half turn to enjoy. I swear the best footballing performance I’ve seen from us this season was when we went to Birmingham in the Second Round of the League Cup and comfortably beat them 3-1 with a back three that included Ebou Adams and Mahlon Romeo – we scored some classy goals and the home side were chasing shadows at times.

In the next round we travelled to Blackburn and, with a back three consisting of Adams, Romeo and Jonathan Panzo traded goals with the home team in an enthralling first half which ended with us level with our hosts at 2-2. The second half saw our fantasy football exposed though as we fell apart and could have conceded eight instead of the five we did let in – in the end, 5-2 probably flattered us..

This game was a confirmation of what must, surely, happen more often than not if you put out experimental, makeshift defences against something close to first choice Championship attacks – for all that you may play some watchable football along the way, you’re going to end up being beaten and, often, beaten heavily.

Therefore, I assumed that we’d seen the last of Cardiff City’s wacky selections at Blackburn, but, not a bit of it, we were at it again tonight at Sheffield Wednesday in the Third Round of the FA Cup and this was even more fantasy football than anything seen before!

Just have a look at the team we started with tonight. In front of Jak Alnwick was a back four consisting of under 21 captain and regular centreback Xavier Benjamin at right back, first team right back Perry Ng and central midfielder Ryan Wintle at centre back and Ollie Tanner, who has mostly been on the right wing this season, at left back. The sitting midfield two were forgotten men Romaine Sawyers and Andy Rinomhota (both of whom have been linked with moves away from City in the coming weeks), with Josh Bowler on the right wing, Callum Robinson on the left and Rubin Colwill supporting centre forward Kion Etete.

To be fair, Dimitrios Goutas is, apparently, on compassionate leave following a death in his family and Mark McGuinness was missing with an illness that has laid low some other squad members as well as Erol Bulut himself if social media is to be believed, so, this time, it might be that the bizarre selection was forced on us.

However, more than any other cup game this season, tonight’s match fully lived up to the fantasy football label (from our perspective at least) because it had absolutely nothing to do with what is Cardiff City’s reality over the first half of the 23/24 season when it comes to league football..

In some ways, we played better tonight than we did in beating Wednesday twice in the league, the Ng and Wintle pairing meant that we passed the ball better out of defence than we normally do and whenever Sawyers plays there are quite a few reminders as to what a fine player he once was, Rinomhota gave the midfield more energy than it often has and Colwill, Tanner and Etete often linked up effectively in a way they don’t get the chance to in the first team as they are seldom all on the pitch at the same time.

We had twenty two goal attempts to Wednesday’s twelve, nine on target efforts to their six and won the corner count by ten to four, but there was a professionalism and ruthlessness to Wednesday which we just couldn’t match.

There was, to be fair, a generous helping of luck on Wednesday’s side too, Josh Windass has made a career out of scoring goals like the one he did in just seventy seconds, so it would be wrong to dismiss it as a fluke, but when a similar speculative thirty yarder from a full back flies into your net before the half is out, you do start wondering if it’s just not your day.

Most bizarre of all today though were the two penalties City missed within seven minutes of Windass’ very early goal. First, Rinomhota ran fifty yards with the ball in a way that none of our other central midfielders at the club do and was then brought down for what I’d call a fairly dubious penalty award. Wintle stepped up to take the penalty which made sense as he’d netted from the spot in a far more pressurised situation deep into added time to win the game with Wednesday at Cardiff City Stadium back in August. This time though, Wintle’s penalty was nowhere near as impressive and all keeper Cameron Dawson had to do was guess the right way to dive to pull off a fairly routine save.

Three minutes later Etete was brought down for what looked a more obvious penalty and Callum Robinson was nominated to take this one – quite why that should be, I don’t know as Robinson missed two from two in the league last season when he was playing far better than he is this time around. The result was completely predictable as the second penalty was even poorer than the first one and while Dawson will get a lot of headlines for his double saving of the spot kicks, I thought he made better stops within quick succession just before half time to foil Colwill and Etete.

Colwill must have had three or four shots of varying quality which were saved before half time as City responded well to the blow of conceding early and then missing two spot kicks, but their makeshift defence were struggling to cope and Alnwick twice came to his team’s rescue with good saves.

However, the keeper was at fault when he came for and missed a corner which hit the blameless Sawyers and rebounded into the net and then long serving full back Liam Palmer smashed one in from long range to send his team in, somehow, 3-0 up at the break.

The pattern was repeated in the second half as Robinson and sub Cian Ashford missed well worked chances that they should have put away, but the difference in finishing quality between the teams was further emphasised when sub Mallik Wilks made it 4-0 in added time with another well taken goal.

It’s hard to know what to think about City’s attitude to cup football this season, but, overall, I don’t see how someone like Benjamin benefits from being played out of position in an experimental rearguard and then being taken off at half time. Similarly, Joel Colwell, Benjamin’s replacement, played forty five minutes and I thought he did well, but did it all do his first team prospects any good? I doubt it, Colwill was on the bench on Monday at QPR and you knew he was never going to be brought on because that’s not how the Championship version of Cardiff City works in 23/24 – today was only fantasy football and it’ll be back to the real stuff next weekend.

That’s the bit I don’t get – I can fully understand why it’s impractical and dangerous to approach league games as we do cup games, but there have been some good aspects to our cup games this season which you’d like to think could be utilised when it comes to the Championship.

Earlier, I not very seriously suggested that we’re playing like we do in Cup ties because Bulut and co have taken pity on those of us who yearn for some entertainment from their team to go with their, admittedly, good results. However, it’s probably more realistic to say that our manager and his coaching staff are showing us romantics what would happen if we played like some of us want the team to play like – the football we play in the cups has no basis in reality and the fantasy in the football we play when there are no league points at stake is all to do with the traditional meaning of that word.